O’Malley schedules meeting Monday with top two Md. lawmakers about bail hearings

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) plans to meet Monday with the two top leaders of the Maryland legislature to discuss an emerging issue in the upcoming 90-day session: how to comply with a court ruling that defendants have a constitutional right to counsel at initial bail hearings.

Some leading lawmakers have bristled at the potential cost of supplying public defenders for such proceedings at a time when the state is facing a fresh round of budget shortfalls. Lawmakers are expected to consider a range of reforms to the bail system when they convene next month.

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Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) called the September ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals “nonsense” during an appearance Friday before a conference of the Maryland Association of Counties in Cambridge, Md.

“I’m a lawyer. I don’t understand it. This makes no sense whatsoever,” Miller told the group of county leaders. “We’ve got to find lawyers for people who are arrested and who have not yet even been brought to court.”

O’Malley, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) are scheduled to discuss the issue Monday morning, the offices of all three men confirmed.

The state public defender’s office has estimated the court’s decision will cost it $28 million annually. That does not factor in the additional costs of staffing the hearings with prosecutors and other personnel.

At the initial hearings, “court commissioners” decide whether to set bail or to release defendants on their own recognizance. When bail is denied or cannot be met, defendants are kept in jail, where they typically remain until a review hearing is held before a judge, usually the next business day.

In a divided decision, Maryland’s high court ruled that under the state constitution, the due-process provision provides a right to counsel that “attaches to any proceeding that may result in the defendant’s incarceration.” That includes initial bail hearings in front of commissioners, the court held.

In the wake of the ruling, lawmakers are expected to consider several reforms, including scrapping the commissioner system and replacing secured bonds with a risk assessment that would rank defendants on their public safety risk.

At the conference in Cambridge, Jeanne Hitchcock, O’Malley’s top legislative aide, said she expects robust debate in the upcoming session.

“I mean, that has an incredible fiscal impact in the state, and I don’t know how we’re going to wind up getting out of that — if at all — but I do know this: that there probably has to be some sort of legislative relief,” Hitchcock said.

Hitchcock and Miller appeared as part of the same panel that offered a preview of the legislative session. The panel also included Busch and House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel).

In a brief interview after the panel discussion, Busch said he shares some of Miller’s concerns about the court ruling.

 
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